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A special Wednesday night appearance, September 26th [2001], at The Rosendale Cafe... Celebrated performing songwriter Richard Shindell, who moved to Argentina last year with his family, has arrived for a nine-show tour of the Northeast. Rather than entirely composing his performance of his own tunes, he plans to comfort the evening with a selection of songs familiar to most American audiences. Come early...


"Ghostchaser at Rosendale Cafe"
Story by Gary Alexander
Photos by Ray G. Ring IV

  Related Sites:     Richard Shindell     Rosendale Cafe  

It's not just that line of vague blue phantoms moving against the sky like refugees at twilight, it's shadow and innuendo, you see?

You're sitting shotgun in Richard Shindell's parked car as he plays you a rough-mix tape of his just-written, just-recorded song, "Wisteria," and you're trying to get past the stirring beauty of the melody and the verbal images playing out on that haunting balladeer's voice to distill precisely what he's saying here. The song recounts a visit to a place he once lived and offers homage to an eave-encircling vine which the new tenants have seen fit to remove. Shindell is allowing you a sniff of its springtime blossoms, a glance at the reassuring winter-starkness of its snaking form, the multi-drip summer rain pattern forming on its winding twists, the orange-burnished, fallen sycamore leaves caught in its autumn web and a past-anger, hollow feeling of mournful resignation costumed in aching sound... And it strikes you...This is a protest song.

"Wisteria" saw its first public performance that night, last year, at the Rosendale Cafe, where its author returns for an encore on April 21st. It now graces a breath-catching list of tunes on his new cd, Somewhere Near Paterson and it also serves as a key to critical insight into the mind and music of Richard Shindell.

Roamin' Radoslav with Richard
at Unison Arts Center, New Paltz
Consider the cd title, taken from a tune thereon called "Transit," wherein a flow of road-ragers on the New Jersey Turnpike swerve around a nun changing a tire and off, past their exits, into oblivion as the nun finishes her task and continues on to coach a choir rehearsal of prison inmates whose voices join in transcendence of their surroundings. Here is a snapshot of the songwriter, the only still and focused figure in a frame ablur with frantic RUSH. Like the white-suited human in a short film of the 60s called The Existentialist by Ed Emshmiller (then better known for his cover paintings on science fiction books and magazines), the only figure striding forward in a city of people walking in reverse.

This is at the center of Shindell's art as he surveys our contemporary situation from a perspective which is a blessed step removed. In "Abuelita," he sketches the thoughts of a woman in the crowd whose son and daughter-in-law have been "disappeared" and raises her twig of hope aloft as she scans the passing faces for a sign of her stolen granddaughter. His "You Stay Here" never makes a backdrop of war overly obvious as its economic signals whisper to stay by the fire and "I'll go look for coats/There may still be/Some out on the road/We'll wash them clean with melted snow/The kids don't ever have to know..." There is no self-pity or moral outrage in such an unspoken protest; merely a gesture which signifies awareness of immediate necessities and circumstance, implying the rest. It is the kind of comment which strikes deeper than outrage.

"Waiting for the Storm" is cast in the related landscape of obstinacy and apprehension, poised in a rocking chair more substantial than an inrushing reality which has evacuated the determination of all others. "Grocer's Broom" closes the last mom and pop store of the neighborhood to rising rents and the monied sweep of change and follows the tired steps of its beloved proprietor into a dark living-room of forced retirement. Turn that key we found above and you can how this master painter of scenes strokes his canvases of song.

At first glance, there's a certain ambiguity to Shindell's tunes which stretches their horizons. Underneath, at the core, they are quite specific but specific in a different way. Shindell is a detector of psychic emotion. He traces the intersection of thought and feeling at highly-charged moments of stress and distraction, ignoring the petty linear details of rational consideration, and musically explores these indelibly potent pockets of experience.

Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell
perform at Falcon Ridge 2000 as the trio Cry Cry Cry.
There are theories which seek to explore ghosts as the psychic residues of human stress staining the electromagnetic signature of a place, embedding into the physical soul of its metal or wood and replaying like sound on tape when the proper impetus presents itself. Shindell finds the most poignant and unusual of these subtle cues and collects them into repertoire. It's a very mystical thing to do and that, in essence, is how he functions as he does. And why not? He, himself, still bears the faint residue of his days at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, way back when, and, even if he found priesthood in contemporary established religion somewhat less mystical than he expected, he retains the vital remnants of the mystic's sense which first perceived the calling and applies it in no less worthy fashion, calling himself a "misanthropic ex-seminarian lapsed-Buddhist Agnostic for Jesus." A line, needless to say, reviewers love to quote.

Somewhere between Abraham H. Maslow's Religions, Values and Peak-Experiences and Todd Gitlin's Twilight of Common Dreams, Shindell is gathering the blossoms for his next bouquet. With eyes that see through fleshy matters and fingers that pick into the heart, he illustrates with mute objections of the self-evident invisibly binding his compositions together.

If you visit his website at www.richardshindell.com, you'll see Richard doesn't often get over our way, so here's an opportunity to catch an extraordinary talent in the flesh and spirit of the moment.

-Gary Alexander

Gary Alexander is an independent journalist and scholar whose focus of interests range through a variety of disciplines. Under various names, he has written (and ghost written) upon history and current event; science and technology, as well as music and the arts in books and for national periodicals. While particularly attentive to the subtle and complex impact upon cultural imagination and contemporary structures of presumption which activity in the above mentioned topics tend to have, Alexander treats his topics with a slightly more than occasional resort to humor.

Posted on September 21, 2001

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